Tribute to Victor Calvo

Victor Calvo is a former elected official from Mountain View, who served in the Legislature from 1975-1981, and on the State Public Utilities Commission from 1982-87. I was lucky enough to work for him for five years, as an Assembly committee consultant on air quality and alternative energy. Victor is not well known outside Santa Clara County, and has been mostly forgotten in Sacramento. Over the last several months, I’ve been spending some time with him as he battles prostate cancer. We retold stories from our time together, back in the day when the California Legislature was regarded as one of the finest deliberative bodies in the country. And he shared new details of his life and times in politics, and his service in World War II. Spending time with him reminded me how much I learned from him, especially about old fashioned integrity and personal honor.

The Calvos were Spanish immigrants, who settled in the Santa Clara Valley in the early part of the 20th century. His father and mother came to California as children, after their families first emigrated to Hawaii as contract laborers on sugar plantations, to escape the poverty of rural Andalusia. His family farmed in the Santa Clara Valley, near San Antonio road. He worked the fields alongside his father and brothers, and knew hard work from a very early age.

Victor Calvo

Victor Calvo

He was valedictorian of his graduating class at Mountain View High School in 1942, and volunteered for the Army Air Corps. He became a bomber pilot, stationed in Cerignola, Italy. The heroism of these pilots was chronicled in Stephen Ambrose’s marvelous book, “The Wild Blue”, which told the story of George McGovern and the men and boys who flew B 24′s over Germany. Victor didn’t know McGovern, but their stories, and the dangers they faced, were much the same. He flew more than twenty missions over Germany, including several top secret flights that were never recorded.

He returned home to Santa Clara County, and graduated from Stanford University with a degree in political science in 1948. He worked alongside immigrant farm workers to pay for college. Years later in Sacramento, he would remember the back breaking labor and the short handled hoe, and supported the United Farm Workers union. He and his wife, Nellie, were blessed with five children, and he became a successful businessman, and a community activist. He began his career in public service in 1962, with his election to the Mountain View City Council, followed by election to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. He was elected to the State Assembly in 1974.

In the time that I worked for him, I never heard him speak much about his wartime service, but looking back, I can clearly see the quiet dignity and unspoken courage of a man who had seen war and death up close, but who chose not to talk about his sacrifice and service. What I do remember is his unflinching honesty and integrity, and his old fashioned sense of right and wrong. He was a straight arrow in a sea of ego and ambition, with the temptations of power nearby. He was low key and quiet, but razor sharp and tough as nails when being pressured by special interests. He was calm and deliberate when faced with a difficult decision. He was an environmentalist before the word came into use, a life-long bird watcher, and a pioneer in fighting air pollution as a founding member of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. In Sacramento, he and Nellie, lived in the same apartment building as then Governor Jerry Brown.

He loved the work of being a legislator, and was well liked and respected by his colleagues for his intellect and knowledge of environmental and energy issues. He worked to protect California’s forests from clear cutting, but having been in the retail lumber business, he listened to those on the industry side. He was an early champion of environmental protection, and carried bills to advance energy efficiency, alternative fuels and renewable energy. As Chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, he faced down the nuclear power industry and their powerful allies, including his old friend, Senator Al Alquist, and instead, pushed for renewable energy and cogeneration.

He was a liberal, reform Democrat, and a loyal lieutenant of Assembly Speaker, Leo McCarthy. He was scrupulously fair, and believed in due process for every side of an issue. As a Committee Chairman, he was a stickler for the rules, and last minute amendments were not allowed unless they were available to everyone and had been analyzed by independent Committee staff.

He was heartbroken when the Speakership fight between Leo McCarthy and Howard Berman broke out, and he decided to retire after only three terms. His hand- picked successor, Byron Sher, then a Palo Alto City Councilman, went on to serve 25 years in the Assembly and Senate, and proved to be a worthy successor. Victor said we wouldn’t miss him, but we did.

Governor Jerry Brown appointed him to the Public Utilities Commission, where he was an independent, hard working Commissioner, who read every case before him, and wrote nearly every decision adopted in his name. He refused to cave into pressure from utility lobbyists or cut deals with his more expedient colleagues. He listened to all sides, studied the record, and then voted his conscience. As in the Legislature, he stood apart from the crowd, did his job, and neither sought or received special attention.

He served as an alternate appointee to the California Coastal Commission, but was denied a permanent appointment and the chance to become Chairman of the Commission by then Speaker Willie Brown. He was too independent, and influential with the other Commissioners. And, so he retired from the public arena, to a good life of family, golf, travel, and reading history.

As he comes to the end of his life’s journey, he is at peace, with a satisfied mind. But the memory of his lifetime of public service, and the example of his integrity and courage, will live on.

~ V. John White

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